Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.
It’s always a great feeling to book a flight with miles and points and pay almost nothing out of pocket.
But depending on the airline and your travel style, you might be on the hook for tens or hundreds of dollars in extra airline charges. That can really put a damper on the thrill of getting a cheap or free ticket!
So what can you do to avoid paying too much for incidental fees? I have some tricks to share!
Where You Might Pay More
You’ll hear folks complain about airlines nickel-and-diming passengers
. And often, it’s true! Especially if you’re flying coach class or don’t have elite status, you might have to pay for:
- Checked baggage
- Ticket change or cancellation
- Overweight or oversize baggage
- In-flight food and drink
- In-flight entertainment (including headsets, movies, and games)
- In-flight Wi-Fi
- Phone or last-minute ticketing
- Seat selection
- Carry-on baggage
- Unaccompanied minors
Airfarewatchdog has a list of the fees you can expect from major US airlines. These can really add up, especially when you add in the cost of airplane meals, drinks, and entertainment.
You can avoid some of these charges by planning ahead and packing light. But other times, you might have no choice but to pay extra.
Here are some ways to minimize your expenses and keep the “small” in Big Travel with Small Money!
Pack Light, Don’t Check Bags
I always try to take only carry-on luggage
because I hate waiting at the baggage carousel after a long flight! And I don’t like paying extra to check bags!
Smart packing and a good carry-on bag are essential, and Million Mile Secrets readers know a lot about that!
Most US airlines charge at least $25 or more to check a bag (more for 2nd and 3rd checked bags). A family of 4 could end up paying hundreds of dollars in fees just for baggage alone!
If you can’t get away with just a carry-on, consider flying airlines that don’t charge for checked bags. For instance, you get 2 free checked bags with Southwest and 1 with JetBlue. And remember, bags have weight restrictions, too, so spread weight around when you can and leave heavy items at home!
Also, many airlines don’t count your coat or jacket as a carry-on item, so you can stuff your pockets!
Bring Your Own Food and Entertainment
If you’re in domestic coach class, you might get a free soft drink or pack of peanuts, but for more substantial food and drink (if the airline even offers it), you’ll usually have to pay. And it’s not cheap!
Check out some of these US airline coach class menus:
- Alaska Airlines Main Cabin Food and Beverage Service
- American Airlines Snack & Meal Options
- Delta EATS Transcontinental Menu
- United Airlines Choice Menu
- US Airways MarketPlace Menu
If you plan ahead and pack portable food (sandwiches, fruit, snack mix, chips, cheese & crackers, granola bars, etc.) you’ll be less tempted to order off the menu. And folks with children know that having an ample supply of snacks and treats in their carry-on bag is a must, especially on long journeys.
Many airlines charge extra for headphones, movies, games, and premium TV channels. Remember to bring your own earphones (they’re probably better anyway!) and consider packing a tablet or laptop pre-loaded with movies, games, and shows. This is even more important if you have kids (or are a kid!). 😉
Or you could go the low-tech route and just pack a really good book!
Book Tickets in Advance, Online
Some airlines charge an extra fee for booking award tickets close to the date of travel. For example, you’ll pay $75 to book an award ticket on American Airlines, US Airways, and United Airlines if it’s less than 21 days prior to departure. Delta, Southwest, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America, and Hawaiian Airlines do NOT have a close-in booking fee.
So if you need a last minute award ticket, and have some flexibility in which airline you can travel, choose a frequent flyer program that doesn’t charge these fees!
And many airlines charge a fee for booking award tickets over the phone or in-person. For example:
- Alaska Airlines: $15
- Delta: $25 over phone, $35 in person
- JetBlue: $25
- Hawaiian Airlines: $25 over phone, $35 in person
- United Airlines: $25
- US Airways: $30 US/Canada, $40 everywhere else
Note: US Airways charges an award processing fee of $25 to $50 for any award ticket, but that’s waived if you’re an elite Gold, Platinum, or Chairman’s Preferred member.
Save Money on Seat Selection
If you don’t mind taking a chance, you could possibly get upgraded to premium coach class (United Airlines Economy Plus, JetBlue “Even More Space”, etc.).
If you purposely do NOT select a coach class seat, and all the other coach seats fill up, you could get bumped up to premium coach class at check-in without being charged extra. This is only worthwhile if you’re traveling by yourself and don’t mind sitting in a middle seat in coach if this strategy doesn’t work!
Remember, airlines like JetBlue already have extra legroom on every seat. For seat selection tips, you can always check out SeatGuru.com.
And if you travel on United Airlines a LOT, you might consider an Economy Plus subscription. For ~$500 per year, you can upgrade to United Airlines Economy Plus on any flight where Economy Plus seats are available. For a Global subscription, you’ll pay ~$700 per year.
This wouldn’t be worth it for most folks, but business travelers who fly United Airlines frequently could really get their money’s worth!
Use the Right Credit Card
Some credit cards will waive certain fees (like your 1st checked bag), give you discounts for on-board purchases, and get you into airport lounges for free (or cheaper). And there are cards that offer statement credits for many airline incidentals, or reimburse you for travel expenses (including fees!).
Here are some of my favorite cards that can help you pay less!
|Card||Waived Fees||Statement Credits||Discounts||Airport Lounges||Annual Fee|
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
|First checked bag free for yourself and up to 4 companions on the same reservation||N/A||25% off in-flight food and drink||N/A||$99 (waived for the first year)|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®||First checked bag free for yourself and up to 8 companions on the same reservation||N/A||25% off in-flight food and drink||Free American Airlines Admirals Club lounge membership||$450|
|American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles||First checked bag free for yourself and up to 8 companions on the same reservation||$50 for any Delta purchase within 1st 3 months of having the card||20% off in-flight food, drink, and entertainment||Discounted Delta SkyClub lounge day passes||$95 (waived for the 1st year)|
|American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles||First checked bag free for yourself and up to 8 companions on the same reservation||$100 for any Delta purchase within 1st 3 months of having the card||20% off in-flight food, drink, and entertainment||Discounted Delta SkyClub lounge day passes||$195|
|American Express Delta Reserve||First checked bag free for yourself and up to 8 companions on the same reservation||N/A||20% off in-flight food, drink, and entertainment||Free Delta SkyClub lounge access when traveling on Delta||$450|
|Barclaycard Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard||First checked bag free for primary cardholder only||N/A||N/A||N/A||$89|
|Chase UnitedPlus Explorer||First checked bag free for yourself and 1 companion traveling on the same reservation||$50 statement credit after your 1st purchase||N/A||2 free United Club passes per year||$95 (waived for the 1st year)|
|Chase United MileagePlus Club||2 free checked bags for yourself and 1 companion traveling on the same reservation|
Close-in booking fee waiver for award flights booked less than 21 days prior to departure
|$100 after 1st (any) purchase, including airline fees||N/A||Free United Club lounge membership||$450|
|Bank of America Virgin America Premium Signature & Signature Cards||First checked bag free for yourself and 1 companion traveling on the same reservation|
Waived change & cancel fees (Premium card only)
|N/A||20% off in-flight food, drink, and entertainment||N/A||$49 (Signature)
$149 (Premium Signature)
|Citi Prestige® Card||N/A||$250 per calendar year airline incidental fee credit||N/A||Free American Airlines Admirals Club access when traveling on American Airlines||$450|
|Chase Ritz-Carlton Rewards||N/A||$300 per calendar year airline incidental fee credit||N/A||Free Lounge Club Membership||$450|
|Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard||N/A||Get 2.1% cash back for travel expenses, including airline incidental fees||N/A||N/A||$89 (waived for the 1st year)|
Note: Some of these cards have steep annual fees, so you’ll only save money if you travel a lot and can make the most of their benefits.
Even if you’re traveling on a cheap or free award ticket, you might still pay airline incidental fees for checked baggage, booking or changing your ticket, in-flight amenities, and more.
There are ways to minimize what you’ll pay for these extras! By packing light, bringing your own food and entertainment on-board, booking your own tickets early and online, and having the right credit cards, you can save a lot of money. Especially folks who travel frequently.
Do you have any tips and tricks for saving money on airline fees?